Retreat Reflections

My wife and I recently returned from a silent retreat to the oldest monastery in America, the Abbey of Gethsemani, located on Monks Road in Trappist, Kentucky. We heard of it last year after visiting the nearby, and also very quiet, Shaker Village, the largest restored such site in America and the place where the late monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton used to retreat to when the monastery got to be too much.

One detail worth sharing is that our retreat was over Independence Day weekend, which also happens to be just after our wedding anniversary, but before whisking my bride off to the monastery, we did spend a couple of nights at a nearby bed and breakfast to celebrate. For the record, we were allowed to communicate with each other, simply not publicly. While we understand the reasoning and we enjoyed the retreat overall, the enforced silence kept us from engaging with our fellow guests, which we found limiting.

Another quirk of our retreat experience was round the clock ritualization of all activities by, you guessed it, the omnipresent clock. Ironically, it was medieval monks who concocted clocks to regulate the routine of daily devotions at monasteries. And the unintended consequence of the innovation was that the very contraption designed to draw people toward the divine instead became the means used to manipulate life as we know it.

To that point, here is an excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: “In [Lewis] Mumford’s great book Technics and Civilization, he shows how, beginning in the fourteenth century, the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. In the process, we have learned irreverence toward the sun and the seasons, for in a world made up of seconds and minutes, the authority of nature is superseded.”

Postman adds, “With the invention of the clock, Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events. And thus, though few would have imagined the connection, the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment; that is to say, the clock introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser. Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment: Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.”

The Road Less Travelled

I am reading a book called The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel by Dan Kienan, a travel writer who rarely if ever flies because he prefers more pedestrian modes of travel, such as walking. The book is all about taking the road less travelled, which the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” suggests makes all the difference. And I agree, so much so that I carry a copy of the poem in my Moleskine.

Speaking of roads and notebooks, fellow travel writer and user of Moleskines, Bruce Chatwin, is quoted by Kienan: “Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and life itself is a journey, to be walked on foot.” While I don’t know if I want to walk everywhere on the journey of life, there is much to be said for slowing down long enough to savor the stroll.

Kienan also quotes my favorite travel writer, Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” And the author suggests that what Thoreau may mean by “music” is an alternative concept of time, namely celebrating the present.

“The thrill of living in the moment, which is the real destination of all journeys, is what the greatest travel writers are revealing in their meticulous descriptions of the places they go and the people they meet,” writes Kienan. Wherever we are on our own travels it helps if we move more slowly and read the signposts along the way so we can make detours if necessary. Here is to enjoying the journey!

Time: The Priceless Possession

I finished reading Timelock: How Life Got So Hectic and What You Can Do About It by Ralph Keyes and thought I’d share some of its insights here. As Keyes writes: “One of the most basic questions one can ask in getting out from under timelock is, ‘What would you be doing if you only had six months to live?’ Those who filled out questionnaires did so.

Their answers were revealing. With half a year remaining, the most common preference was to spend time with family, look up old friends, travel, read, and write.” That is exactly what my wife and I have been doing since selling our house and stuff a couple of years ago. Living by design with an eye on eternity means treating time as the priceless possession it is.

Here is a “butcher’s dozen” [one less than a dozen] tips from The Timelock Antidote Handbook chapter of Timelock:

Develop a new sense of time…realize it is a relative concept.
Plan life, not time…get a bigger picture perspective.
Manage time organically…remember the journey is the destination.
Decelerate…slow down the pace of your race to succeed.
Modulate…moderate your lifestyle with regular breaks from action.
Reduce awareness of time…quit clock watching in favor of living.
Seek sanctuary from time…celebrate sabbatical periods of inactivity.
Limit purchases…create stuff instead of consuming goods.
Pay attention to yourself and others…prioritize time with people.
Upgrade family time…go for quantity as well as quality.
Achieve more by doing less…accept that you cannot have it all.

Living Off Margin

Sitting here at Merridees Breadbasket in downtown Franklin and watching the manic movement of people reminds me of the times I spent observing the ant hills of my youth in rural Virginia. There is a hum of activity, some of which appears purposeful and some not so much, but what stands out to me is the pace of the procession. Judging by the furrowed brows of people’s faces, it appears that many are left without much margin in their lives.

As I observe this I am reminded of a quote by bestselling author John Eldredge: “The strategy of the enemy of our souls in the age we live now is busyness.” Amen to that. After failing to connect with a couple of friends recently despite repeated attempts on my part to accommodate their schedules, I finally surmised the other day that people are simply too busy for their own good.

It was impressionist composer Claude Debussy who remarked, “Music is the space between the notes.” And I couldn’t agree more. What is missing in the modern lifestyle is the equivalent of silence to accentuate the magic of life’s music. Rather than arranging life’s activities to allow for times of serendipity, people seem content to live with little or no margin at all in their lives.

Soon after moving here to Franklin I delighted in the realization that our new home is located off a street called Margin. As a matter of fact, we live between the streets of Church and Margin, which I interpret to be a sign of the times. When those who count themselves among God’s people can’t find the time to fellowship with one another, then much is lost in the meantime.

Not Watching Time

With the change to Daylight Savings Time the other day I tried to update the time on my watch by “springing forward” and realized that the battery in it had died. I had decided beforehand to give it away when the time came to replace the battery so that is what I did and I am thoroughly enjoying being untethered from a timepiece, some version of which I have worn since I learned to tell time as a youngster.

Meanwhile, I am reminded of the story from Gulliver’s Travels when the Lilliputians question if Gulliver’s watch is his god because he is manacled to it at the wrist and he consults it so much. Of course, we can do without a watch much easier nowadays, what with our smartphones and other electronic devices conveniently at hand to tell us the time. But there is something beyond mere symbolism to me in the act of literally loosing oneself from its grip.

It was actually my wife who first dispensed with wearing a watch last year after returning from a particularly relaxing vacation and enjoying the feeling of not watching time. She wound up giving it to my mother, who needed a new watch herself and was more than happy to take it off her hands. As for me, I was only wearing my watch as a fashion accessory on the rare occasion when I dressed up some, such as at church, so I looked forward to quitting it altogether and I am not looking back.

Return From America

My wife and I recently returned from a brief visit to “America,” as Nantucketers refer to the mainland. After four wintry months on this spit of land thirty miles out at sea we were invited to spend a couple of nights with close friends from Nantucket at their rental home in Hyannis on Cape Cod, a two hour ferry ride away.

After a rocky ocean crossing during which I “lost my lunch,” [an experience shared by Thoreau upon his visit here and which he called “paying tribute to the sea”] we proceeded to thoroughly enjoy our stay off island. In addition to watching television and playing Scrabble with our friends, we also indulged our latent desires for food chains, including a relaxing chai latte at Starbucks and a hearty steak supper at Outback.

But one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip came when our friends loaned us their vehicle for the day, which gave us the opportunity to explore Cape Cod’s back roads, including one called “Old King’s Highway,” a meandering scenic road through several picturesque New England villages complete with general stores.

The one pictured above, the Old Village Store, is located in the town of West Barnstable and has been in continuous operation as a general store since before the Civil War. It was even featured, along with the adjacent railroad depot, in the period movie called The Lightkeepers, which was filmed on Cape Cod and featured Richard Dreyfus and Blythe Danner. It transported us back in time even as it served as a waystation on our journey.

The Productivity Myth

One of my favorite observations about the human race is that all too often we strive to live up to our name and so it is important to remind ourselves that God created us as human beings not human doings. The trouble with interpreting our lives merely in light of how much we achieve is that we pressure ourselves into thinking that our value lies solely in what we do rather than in who we are. Indeed, some people go so far as to commit suicide once convinced that they simply don’t measure up to society’s standards, however arbitrary and capricious.

Fueling the fire of disillusionment is the prevailing philosophy that more is better or what I call “the productivity myth.” Along with the Industrial Revolution came the era of intrusive time management studies and other methods for extracting maximum output from workers in an effort to increase the overall productivity of mass machinery and manufacturers. The only problem with that, of course, is that man was never meant to function as a machine, and when he does his soul shrivels up in the process.

I recently read an excellent summary of this very phenomenon in the book The Lonely American by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz: “The cult of busyness may be fueled by current customs and technology, but it rests on three sturdy pillars of American life: Calvinism, capitalism, and competitiveness. From Calvinism comes faith that God is smiling on those who achieve material success. From capitalism comes a perpetual hope (realized often enough) that hard work and new ideas will be rewarded. From a reverence for the competitive spirit comes a genuine admiration for winners. These three intertwined ideas have helped create previously unimagined prosperity. They also invite us to try harder, to work longer, to give back (collectively) hundreds of millions of vacation hours each year, to treat each and every day as another day to succeed.”

Time Isn't Money

I have always valued time more than money. Even as a teenager growing up in rural Virginia, where my needs were few and my wants fewer, I often opted to work odd jobs rather than punch time clocks so I could spend spare time with family and friends or curl up with a good book at my local library. Call me a dreamer but I am most comfortable living life untethered to chronological contraptions.

My dream has always been to function as autonomously as possible, both personally and professionally. Perhaps that is why after more than two decades of wedded bliss my wife and I don’t have any kids or pets, and I’ve operated my own consulting business from home for the past decade or so. There is something alluring about being able to live and work from anywhere with a cell phone and a laptop that appeals to the nomad in me.

As Judith Shulevitz writes in The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, “When time is money, speed equals more of it.” Contrary to popular belief, however, time isn’t money. It is more valuable than that. Nowadays, the ultimate luxury is the ability to structure your time however you see fit. And one way to achieve that lifestyle is to realize that the “good life” isn’t necessarily the “goods life.” The simple truth is that you don’t have to work as much if you aren’t striving to get more stuff.

Sacred Time

In the book Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning, author Gary Eberle writes, “Sacred time is what we experience when we step outside the quick flow of life and luxuriate, as it were, in a realm where there is enough of everything, where we are not trying to fill a void in ourselves or the world, where we exist for a moment at both the deepest and the loftiest levels of our existence and participate in the eternal life of all that is.”

A couple of words from his definition leap out at me: luxuriate and participate. It seems to me that what troubles so many of my fellow travelers through time is the patent unwillingness to “step outside the quick flow of life” in order to luxuriate in the languid experience of living. Notice that I didn’t say it is an inability to slow down one’s pace, but an unwillingness to do so, that hinders people from enjoying life by participating actively in it.

I am reminded of a story I heard about a businessman who encountered a fisherman plying his trade and subsequently suggested a strategy for growing his fledgling enterprise. The ambitious plan called for the fisherman to gradually expand his operation until he was ultimately able to slow down, fish at his own pace and spend time at home with his family. The irony, of course, was that the fisherman was already enjoying that lifestyle without the businessman’s plan.

As far as I can ascertain, that is the way many people strive to live their lives: ever chasing after the illusion of success, yet failing to realize the simple pleasures of the life they possess. And the sad fact of the matter is that the life most dream of is much closer than they realize. As the saying goes, it doesn’t pay to climb the ladder of success, only to learn that it leans against the wrong house.

Easier said than done, some may say, but I beg to differ. It is all a matter of how badly one wants a simpler, more meaningful life. People live the life of their dreams all the time. And it simply involves making conscientious decisions on a daily basis that move one closer to the preferred destination. Sacred time is within reach of us all, if we’ll only let go of what limits us.